by Page Johnson
Professor Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, moderated the session on Georgia and Armenia. Panelists were Davit Mikaelyan, Chief Specialist, Division of National Minorities and Religious Affairs, Government Staff of the Republic of Armenia, and Davit Zedelashvili, Assistant Professor, Free University of Tbilisi; and Head Researcher, National Institute for Human Rights, Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia.
Delegate Davit Mikayelyan discussed the religious situation in Armenia by 1) emphasizing Armenian constitutional rights and 2) detailing some of the procedural requirements to obtain legal status for religious groups.
In contrast to the secular Soviet era with its negative attitude towards religion, he said that post-Soviet society is increasingly interested in religious institutions and religious ideology. With this historical background, however, Armenia’s challenges as it works to integrate religious organizations are different from those that were faced by Western and American societies.
The Department of National Minorities and Religious Affairs ensures the registration of religious communities. No group has been denied their application and the State Registry presently lists 70 such organizations. (This includes religious organizations of national minorities such as Russian, Assyrian, Jewish, and Yezidi.)
The state body also helps religious organizations reach agreements with state entities on various issues, and it helps mediate disputes between Armenian religious organizations. Legal reforms concerning religious freedom are ongoing. In 2010 and 2011 the Ministry of Justice forwarded a new law regarding religion to the Venice Commission–as well as a number of projects that would require amendments to other laws.
As part of the reform movement, Armenia seeks to apply the framework of international law provided by the European Commission for Human Rights (ECHR), notably that freedom of religion is restricted only by those laws that protect security, public order, or the health, morale, rights, and freedoms of other people.
Mikayelyan pointed out, however, that misunderstandings can ensue over different interpretations within the ECHR framework. He said, for example, that it is unclear how a statement like “public morality” can be interpreted, adding that specific criteria could be developed to specify and clarify terms and meanings.
Likewise, he discussed the Venice Commission’s position that when religious communities attempt to acquire legal status and must declare the number of their followers, “the restriction of the number of believers should be ‘reasonable.’” But again he noted that there could be many interpretations of the word “reasonable.”
He also believes there should be better standards and requirements to prevent groups that appear to be religious from acquiring the legal status of a public organization, which is a violation of Armenian law.
In addition to registered organizations, he said that numerous religious groups operate without state registration, and that some religious followers lack clear standards of self-identification, which can create problems. State and public organizations therefore play a role is helping to make citizens more aware of the distinctive features of their religion.
Two other factors have helped integrate and accommodate religious groups. The media have promoted religious tolerance and provided education about various beliefs. Plus, Armenian law now allows citizens to choose an alternative service if their religious beliefs conflict with compulsory military service. Many Jehovah’s witnesses have chosen this route.
Mikayelyan stressed that the Armenian constitution protects “everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and that Armenian society continues to encourage and support joint cooperation between the State and religious communities.
The focus of Davit Zedelashvili’s presentation was the role of the State in protecting religious rights in Georgia—does it stay neutral or should it become proactive? Although various court rulings demonstrate to a degree that the courts have tried to remain neutral, the rulings also reveal that the religious integrity of minority groups is sometimes abused or overlooked. Zedelashvili suggested that the courts could be more vigilant and proactive in preventing such situations.
He discussed the need for normative solutions and standards for people in a pluralistic society—which in Georgia includes not only the prevailing presence of the Georgian Orthodox Church and other Christian groups, but also such entrenched institutions as the family and clan relationships. The question is how to include all those different institutions and their needs within one constitutional framework.
He explained the historical and societal development of modern Georgia—from medieval serfdom to the Russian Empire to a totalitarian state to the republic that exists today.
“Georgia is a cultural nation, not a political nation,” he stressed, pointing out that the ideological and spiritual vacuum created by the Soviet collapse led to the reemergence of old social ties and traditions. The Georgian Orthodox Church in particular consolidated power and emerged as a major social institution in the country. The state has become the social arbiter.
How does the current relationship between church and state work? Zedelashvili first pointed to the Byzantine tradition, which he described as a period of harmony between the religious and the secular as both groups worked together, as in a symphony, towards a “caring of peace, a caring of souls.”
Now, however, every Georgian government uses the Georgian Orthodox Church for its own benefit, and the resulting social power of both is so great that neither the church nor the state has much incentive to change the status quo.
He cited various rulings to demonstrate how the courts appear to be neutral by refusing to enforce religious morality through litigation. In the “Orthodox Parents’ Case” (2009), parents who were offended by a broadcast felt they had a right to censor the broadcasters. But they lost because the courts said they weren’t in the business of enforcing morality.
In contrast, other rulings actually fortify the church’s social power and political influence. For example, the Georgian Orthodox Church receives state money and is exempt from taxes. This money is described as compensation for abuses during the Soviet era. But there is no clear definition of what that damage was, what the appropriate compensation should be, or even how to determine when the “bill” is paid in full. In a Freedom of Information Act case (2016), the Constitutional Court ruled that the Georgian Orthodox Church is exempt from freedom of information duties, and that the receipt of state funds does not make the church a “public authority.” Therefore, it is not required to comply with FOI requests.
The result is that “neutrality” as practiced by the court is uneven at best. Zedelashvili argued that on a constitutional level, “there exists a very thin normative notion of state neutrality, which is unable to make sense or restrain the practice of Georgian political branches.” But the risk of a fuller normative vision of pluralism, Zedelashvili continued, is that it could empower the state against society.
Consequently, challenges for the future include how to deal with the continued disproportional social power of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the fact that “pluralism” in Georgia refers mainly to non-religious institutions. The question Zedelashvili asked is whether other institutions value liberty and foster liberty, and whether they are incentivized to so believe and so act if they already enjoy favored social power and position.
“The possibility of a well-ordered pluralistic society in Georgia depends in large part on the long social-political and constitutional process to this effect, “ Zedelashvili concluded.